By MELISSA ARKIN
Photographs by HEATHER TAYLOR PHOTOGRAPHY
Dr. William Petersen's practice is making waves in the surfing community.
William Petersen, OD, goes surfing every day at lunch time. If the waves are especially good, he’ll hit the water not only during lunch, but before and after work, as well. For many this is a fantasy life; for Dr. Petersen it’s the pulse of an average work day. “After 26 years, most of my patients know I surf at lunchtime,” he says. “They seem to be very supportive of my passion.”
For someone so enamored with surfing, the location of Dr. Petersen’s practice is ideal. His office is situated right above the harbor in Dana Point, a coastal town midway between San Diego and Los Angeles. In fact, the practice is so close to the water that one of the exam rooms has an ocean view. Furthermore, Dana Point’s surf culture is rooted in history—Hobie Alter, inventor of the modern foam and fiberglass surfboard, opened Southern California’s first surf shop there in the 1950s.
Like Dana Point, Dr. Petersen himself has a past that is saturated with surfing. He surfed religiously in the waters of Long Island during his teenage years. When he moved to the west coast to attend Southern California College of Optometry in Fullerton, the weather was more conducive to surfing and the location helped navigate his career path into a hybrid of surf and optometry.
While attending optometry school, Dr. Petersen’s professional and personal lives were already beginning to merge. He proposed to do his senior research project on surfing with contact lenses. The effect of the elements involved in surfing on contacts lens wearers interested him, but he would have to wait and do the research on his own. “The chief of contact lenses at my school wouldn’t approve my project,” he says. “He was from Kansas and he thought surfers were bums.”
Once Dr. Petersen established his practice, he was able to conduct his own study about the correlation between contact lens wear and surfing. He began interviewing his own patients who were surfers and advised them about potential vision problems surfing with contact lenses could lead to. “I emphasized that I wasn’t advocating wearing contact lenses while surfing, rather I was just letting surfers understand the options, as well as risks of contact lens wear in the ocean.” His research was published in Surfer magazine in the mid-1980s.
Dr. Petersen attributes the large number of surfing patients in part to various studies and articles he has written in surfing publications. He has also gained recognition through his membership in the Surfer’s Medical Association, of which he is a founding member, and through word of mouth. His practice has even attracted some of surfing’s elite. “I have some famous surfers that come here, including several of my childhood idols,” he says. “I have several custom surf boards in the office—one is signed by all my famous surf patients, including shapers (someone who builds and designs surfboards by hand) and photographers, who trust their vision to me.”
While the office does attract a lot of surfers, the majority of Dr. Petersen’s patients don’t surf. But in Dana Point a lot of locals are involved in other ocean pastimes like boating, fishing and sailing, if not surfing, so he recommends products that offer protection from the sun to everyone. “I am a big advocate of UV protection,” says Dr. Petersen. “Acuvue products all have a UV blocker built into them so they’re my contact lenses of choice when I prescribe soft lenses. And I recommend polarized lenses with UV protection for around the ocean. We use the Oakley lab for prescription sunglasses that are hard to beat.”
There is well-rounded variety of frame lines that reflect both the surfing patients and those who are not surfers. “Oakley has been our biggest seller in both sunglass and ophthalmic frames for several years now,” says Dr. Petersen. “We also carry Hobie, Silhouette and Serengeti. We are in the process of adding high-end frames to our dispensary. We have Dolce and Gabbana and we’ll soon add Prada. Residential lots by the ocean in Dana Point now sell for upwards of nine million dollars, so this fits the community my practice is in.”
Aside from UV protection, Dr. Petersen focuses on several optical concentrations. “I specialize in difficult-to-fit contact lenses such as corneal refractive therapy, toric and bifocal, soft and RGP lenses, as well as contacts for medical conditions such as keratoconus, corneal transplants and post-refractive surgery complications,” he says. Amazing that in addition to all of this, he manages to break away for his daily surf.
This past May, the office acquired a new addition who shares his passion for surfing. Brett Simon, OD, is a former patient of Dr. Petersen’s, going back to his teenage years. “He told me he wanted to be an optometrist when he was 14,” he says. “He always saw me at the beach at lunchtime surfing. Being a surfer himself, he thought optometry offered a lifestyle that would allow him to surf.” Dr. Simon began to work for Dr. Petersen for nine years while he attended University of California in Irvine and Southern California College of Optometry. He proposed a research project entitled “Can I Wear My Contact Lenses While Surfing?”—and unlike Dr. Petersen’s—his was approved.
Even with the lunch break surf excursions, sometimes Dr. Petersen can’t surf for quite as long as he’d like. “On January 28, 1998, the surf was the biggest I have seen at Salt Creek, where I surf—22 feet! I called the office to cancel the rest of the day but my wife was working at the office and she wouldn’t reschedule the patients, so I had to go back to work. A few months later I told her I didn’t think she should work here anymore.” n